Between 1663 and 1673, eight hundred girls–orphans, destitute young women known as “Les filles du roi”–step off a boat, clutching their meek belongings; France’s King’s gift for their “willingness” to serve their country. At shore, the men await. These men have been foraging a land described by the Jesuits to the King, as “the last border before Hell”, and these men, the Coureur des Bois, are out of their minds with the desire to get their hands on one of the “dainty ladies” of the KIng. Also, they need to get this done quick; the King’s new law states: any young man under the age of twenty who is not married within fifteen days of the girls’ arrival will lose his license to hunt and trade. All right, these men are not exactly thinking a nice night out on the town, followed by a few months of romantic courting.
Yet, surprisingly, this crazy-wrong arrangement works. The girls who leave Paris for the harsh, bitter, new land of Québec, do better than their counterparts. They live longer. Have better lives. Though, I have trouble understanding how, and why. The girls, most of them under the age of fourteen, live on their knees for God and duty, alternating between prayer and scrubbing. And the right to Confession, acceptance of one’s peers, inclusion of the community, means a new baby every year.
This, is a bit of my heritage; a trace of all that beautiful mess still lingers in my blood.
What happened when my great-great-great ( add a few more greats ) grandmother’s eyes met her suitor’s? This man hauled her into his sled, took her to his log cabin, somewhere far behind the line of trees–the only thing she could see from the shore–and shut the door, the cold, the wild behind them both. Was he handsome? Nervous? Or all eager hands and tobacco breath? Did they talk, laugh a little? Was her’s a stroke of luck, more than duty fulfilled? Did she lie in bed that night and weep, or thank God?
Yeah, it was probably a little of both.
I’d like to think she made the best of it. I’d like to believe that through the years, she fell in love with him. And he with her.
But however it went down, this great-great-great-great granddaughter is in debt to a Fille du Roi, turned settler’s wife.